The results of the Nevada caucuses are, first and foremost, a great sign of hope for American democracy. In an era of rampant corruption and corporate control in both political parties, Nevada handed a blowout win to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ― one of two candidates in the race who have sworn off the old pattern of billionaire patronage and instead produced a policy platform designed to make this country work for working people of all colors.
The caucus results are also a reason for optimism about the future of the Democratic Party. Despite the best efforts of the party’s power brokers and big donors, voters overwhelmingly decided to back a candidate whose agenda calls for a transfer of power away from those elites and into the hands of the people.
These are causes for celebration. It has been a dark decade for democracy around the world, and the spectacle of Americans coming together to rebuke the Democratic Party’s aristocratic drift, which has driven so much of the turn to President Donald Trump’s authoritarian populism, is both beautiful and profound.
But you wouldn’t know this from the way establishment pundits, including many ostensible Democrats, reacted to Sanders’ win Saturday evening. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews literally compared Sanders’ victory to the fall of France to Nazi Germany. MSNBC host Nicole Wallace, a former George W. Bush staffer, described Democratic enthusiasm for Sanders as “political suicide,” and, puzzlingly, said the supporters of the night’s runaway victor constitute only “a squeaky, angry minority.”
This reaction is yet more evidence of the haplessness of the Democratic elite. It has been clear all year that Sanders is the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination. And after his impressive showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the moneyed minds of the party scrambled to get behind untested thirty-something ex-Mayor Pete Buttigieg and erstwhile Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg. On the debate stage earlier this week in Las Vegas, both men did their best to beat up on Sanders, but failed to deliver so much as a scratch. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) did as she promised she would, torching Bloomberg in a debate performance for the ages.
There were three attacks launched against Sanders during Wednesday’s debate. First, Bloomberg suggested Sanders was a capital-C Communist. Second, Bloomberg criticized him for owning three houses. Third, nearly everyone on stage, including Warren, directed at him an inexplicable question: What about your bros?
None of these attacks work. They didn’t work four years ago, and they didn’t work in Nevada. Any campaign advisers who suggested using them should be discharged for political malpractice.
Let’s go through them one by one:
The ding on Bernie’s houses is a joke. Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest men, could forswear interest income on his vast fortune and still spend a million dollars a day for more than 160 years without running dry. Yet Bloomberg claims to think it’s a problem for Sanders to own three pieces of real estate.
The explosion of inequality over the past three decades has not been driven by people picking up vacation cabins in rural Vermont. It’s been driven by the financialization of our economy and the eruption of gains for Wall Street, gains secured by downward pressure on wages for workers around the world. Bloomberg is the walking embodiment of this problem. A man with three houses who advocates for higher taxes for himself, meanwhile, is acting on moral principle. Most people get that, even if the one-percenters on Bloomberg’s staff don’t.
Next, the Red Menace. It’s true that Americans are cagey about the word “socialism,” if less so than in decades past. But socialism only works as an attack against a vague abstraction. The same polls that show Americans wary of socialism show them enthusiastic about Sanders. When “socialism” might mean gulags, people are uncomfortable. When it means universal health care and stiff taxes on billionaires, it sounds about right.
Last but not least, the bros. Everyone who works in politics has been annoyed, harassed or insulted by Sanders’ crankiest supporters ― including people who work for Sanders. There is indeed an internet army of jerks who are very psyched about the prospect of a Sanders presidency.
So what? Attacking people who are not Bernie Sanders doesn’t draw much blood from Bernie Sanders ― particularly when one of the premises of his campaign is that he can bring in people from out of the political cold, people who might be flirting with Trump, and give them a place in the Democratic Party advocating for economic equality.
Labeling all of Sanders’ supporters as angry trolls obscures why large factions of the party are drawn to him. Hint: It’s not the chance to score cheap points on Twitter against union officials. In the real world, millions of people are responding to the message that Sanders is broadcasting ― that the nation’s political system and its economic practices are rigged against working people, and that something transformative is required to fix it. It is a very normal thing to support Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party. It is abnormal to be a Sanders troll.
The women who are part of that coalition, and the people of color, and the white guys who just want to live in a decent society, don’t really want to hear from Democratic presidential candidates that, actually, they’re all a bunch of morally compromised deplorables. Nobody wants to hear that. And it’s madness that anybody involved in any of these campaigns thinks that attacking Democratic primary voters is a good strategy for winning a Democratic primary.
In short, the Democratic Party establishment is failing to derail its progressive insurgents because the Democratic Party establishment does not understand its rank and file. So much the better for American democracy.